The trial of Hissène Habrè as an example of International Justice

Lawyer Reed Brody spoke at a public hearing at the European Parliament on ‘The Case of Hissène Habrè’. Brody is known worldwide as the ‘Dictator Hunter’ after he played a central role in a process that resulted in the conviction of Chad’s former dictator. At the meeting, organised by MEP Ana Gomes, he illustrated how this experience can be seen as a ‘seed of hope’ in African history.

Reed Brody highlighted what he considers fundamental steps of the process of conviction, which took more than seventeen years. In particular he pointed out that the most important part was the absolute centrality and empowerment of testimonies of the survivors.  The faces of the victims were crucial for maintaining the interest in the case. He firmly believes that one of the biggest turning points in Habrè’s trial process was bringing one of the survivors, Souleymene Guengueng, face to face with Louis Michel in Belgium, which led to Belgium supporting the process.

Ana Gomes stressed the importance to the European Institutions of this case and the experiences of Brody and the Chadian survivors. The conviction of Hissène Habrè provides important lessons for achieving justice for ongoing and historical cases of crimes against humanity. It particularly shows the importance of documentation, victim empowerment and perseverance.

The Habrè regime took power in 1982 overthrowing the government of Goukouni, an action backed by USA president Ronald Reagan and the French government. Back then Chad was seen as a strategic country in order to oppose Gaddafi’s rising empire in Libya, which was occupying the northern part of Chad. During his eight years in power, Habrè and his political police force, the ‘Directorate de Documentation et Securité’ (DDS), were responsible for a range of atrocities including political killings, systematic torture, arbitrary arrests and the targeting of ethnic groups. In December 1990, Habrè was deposed by his former military chief Idris Déby, and consequently fled to Senegal.

Brody expanded on the importance of General Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in October 1998 in London. This event was immediately seen as a milestone for human rights against dictatorships and furthermore gave a boost to the confidence in justice processes all over the world. Habrè’s legal journey started in January 2000, when seven Chadians filed a complaint against Habrè in Senegal. In the first instance a Senegalese judge placed Habrè under house arrest, However, the case was dismissed less than six months later by the Senegalese Appeal Court, suspected to have been the result of political interference. However the initial legal ruling against Habré was enough to encourage more Chadian people believe justice was possible and by the end of that same year seventeen more people from Chad filed complaints against Habrè. Complaints were also filed in Belgium, which was still possible at the time. Unfortunately Senegal’s highest court confirmed the dismissal of the case in March 2001, and after this episode, Mr Brody described the challenge of continuing to believe that a fair process would take place. Brody and survivors such as Souleymane Guengueng, one of the first seven victims to file a complaint against Habrè, did not give up. In 2001 they came in possession of the DDS’s archive which contained documents such as arrest warrants, execution orders and more evidence. As the pressure mounted on Senegal, the Senegalese president tried to get Habrè out of the country; however, the UN Committee Against Torture called on Senegal to keep him there. In 2005 Belgium requested Habré’s extradition from Senegal, and although this request was denied, Habrè case was submitted for consideration by the African Union. Senegal was then mandated by the AU to prosecute Habrè ‘on behalf of Africa’. Senegal delayed taking the case to trial citing a lack of finance for the procedure. In 2009, Belgium asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order Senegal to either bring Habrè to trial or extradite him. The ICJ ruled in 2012 that Senegal must proceed without delay, and one year later in July 2013 Habrè was charged with crimes against humanity by the newly established ‘Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese Courts’. In May 2016 Hissene Habrè was sentenced to life imprisonment and in April 2017 he was ordered to pay 123 millions euros in compensation to a victims trust fund.